Illustrating du Pont’s Birds

The paralegal told me to spell his name lower-case d – u, capital P-ont. And in person I should address him as Doctor du Pont because apparently he received a doctorate from somewhere.

So then, between 2005 and 2007, Dr. John du Pont, played by Steve Carrell in the 2014 film, Foxcatcher, commissioned me to illustrate 173 species of birds for two books. The first, a revised edition of his South Pacific Birds (2010), primarily illustrated by George Sandström, was followed by a new book on the birds of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, a work I subsequently realized is unlikely to ever be published (my illustrations for the latter project may be viewed at birdsofnewcaledonia.com.)

During the time I worked on these books, I met only once with du Pont at Laurel Highlands State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, a minimum security prison which houses mentally-ill inmates. That visit, conducted in a partitioned meeting room within the prison’s visiting area, was intended as an opportunity for du Pont to answer any questions I had in person.

The rest of the time we communicated through the paralegal. She would print my emailed questions and – at her convenience or next scheduled meeting – drive a couple hours to deliver my messages and try to interpret my client’s garbled responses which she would then email back to me. Several days, or even weeks later, I would receive a reply to my queries and I could recommence work on whichever illustrations I had put aside. Once a page of illustrations was painted (an average of three weeks of constant work), I would carefully package it and ship it to Pennsylvania, never to see it again.

Before my trip to Pennsylvania, the paralegal had arranged for me to visit the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan to study specimens of New Caledonian birds found no where else in the US. In the darkest corners of the museum’s ornithological collections, I opened hundreds of drawers of arsenic-laden specimens, trying to locate the best examples of exotic birds from an island some 6,000 miles away. When I introduced the subject of actually visiting New Caledonia to see my subjects alive, in the wild, du Pont asserted it was a bad idea because he erroneously believed the “natives” of the island were in revolt and it was far too dangerous for outsiders to visit.

Some of the birds I illustrated, like the New Caledonian Rail and New Caledonian Lorikeet were long extinct, and apart from a couple ancient photographs, drawings, brief texts and comparisons to related species, I had little to base my illustrations on. In this way, my job was not dissimilar to that of an paleontologist, cobbling together the appearance of an animal no living person had ever laid eyes on. The species accounts provided to me were of minimal help. Written by du Pont in the 1970’s, revised nearly a decade after his incarceration in 1997 where he had no access to the internet and few current publications, they consisted of a few sentences only. The Chattering Kingfisher from South Pacific Birds, for example read like this:

Chattering Kingfisher
Todiramphus tuta (Gmelin, 1788)

1788 Alcedo tuta Gmelin, Syst. Nat., 1:453 (Tahiti)
1906 Todirhamphus wiglesworthi Sharpe, Hist. Coll. Brit. Mus., Bds., p. 182 (Society Islands)

Description: Male—crown green followed by a black band on hind neck; forehead, eyebrow stripe, and collar white;
rest of upperparts dark blue-green; ear-coverts blue-green; underparts pure white. Female—similar to male but blue-green areas paler.
Soft Parts: Bill, upper mandible black, lower mandible black with white base; iris dark brown; feet black.
Measurements: Wing of male 102, of female 104; tail 79; bill 39; tarsus 16.
Range: Leeward Islands and Society Islands (Bora-Bora, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahitis).
Nest and Eggs: Nests in holes 2 to 10 m above ground in old stumps, coco nut trees, and trees of original forest. Eggs (3–4), white.
Remarks: This species is found in forests and valleys and often sits on limbs and coconut fronds. This is a common species.

chattering kingfisher DCF 1.0

 

My own research typically corroborated his observations, but as du Pont himself often based his text on notes he made from preserved specimens back in the 1970s, I was somewhat dubious of the accuracy of his descriptions.

All and all, it was a truly unique experience working with John du Pont. It was the financial pinnacle of my illustration career and I had the opportunity to paint some truly beautiful birds. My one regret is that New Caledonia & Loyalty Island Birds will likely never be published and my original paintings, the product of over two years of work, are moldering away in some storage unit of the du Pont estate, never to see the light of day.

When people ask me of my impression of Dr. du Pont during my one visit with him, I describe a frail, exhausted old man who ate from vending machines because he didn’t trust his prison’s food. Nevertheless, he conducted our meeting like a CEO, as someone accustomed to being listened to. And while he incoherently jumped from bird subject to bird subject, he attempted to answer all of my questions. Despite his condition, I found him to be professionally cordial.

The fact that he wanted me to illustrate another book for him, the birds of the Philippines, convinced me of his faith in my artistic abilities. And although he was convicted murderer and probable schizophrenic, to this day, John du Pont’s interest in my work remains a source of great personal pride. I know little of the circumstances behind du Pont’s homicide of David Shultz, but I know he cared about the preservation of dozens, if not hundreds, of bird species, and in my book, that counts for something.

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